In a move that Chicago Teachers Union public relations representative Stephanie Gadlin described to PW Friday as “Orwellian,” and has galvanized students to protest, the Chicago Public Schools, which oversees 600 elementary, middle, and high schools, with more than 400,000 students enrolled, took steps late last week to restrict students’ access to Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age memoir of her youth in Iran. Persepolis, written in graphic novel format, was published by Pantheon in 2003. Even though Persepolis currently is included on Chicago’s common core curriculum for grades 7 and 11, it will not be taught to students in grades 7-10 in the nation’s third largest school district until, CPS office of teaching and learning chief Annette Gurley told PW by phone Friday afternoon, a training guide for teachers wanting to use Persepolis in their classrooms can be drafted by the CPS curriculum department and set in place. Persepolis will continue to be taught in grades 11 and 12 and in Advanced Placement classes.
“We want to make sure that the message about inhumanity [is what] kids walk away with, not the images of someone with exposed body parts urinating on someone’s back or someone’s being tortured,” Gurley said, “We are not protesting the value of this book as a work of art. We just want to make sure that when we put this book into the hands of students, they have the background, the maturity to appreciate the book.”
“That book will not be back in place as required reading for grades 7-10 until the support is put in place. We want to put the support in place so that the content of this book can be accessed. I don’t think that happens by putting a book on a list and letting people discover it. There needs to be preparation for that,” she added.
Ever since the news broke Thursday night on social media sites that principals at Chicago’s public schools had been ordered to pull Persepolis from classrooms as well as from their library shelves, CPS administrative leaders have been deluged with complaints. Students at one school staged a protest Friday afternoon; students at another staged a read-in. A student sit-in is scheduled to take place this morning inside the Lane Tech school library, the site of Friday’s protest. In a letter to school principals, dated March 15, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is already under fire for wanting to close schools, explained that a principal’s complaint about Persepolis’ graphic language and images had resulted in the action being taken by CPS to restrict access to Persepolis until teachers can be trained how to teach it in the classroom. Byrd-Bennett ordered in her letter that principals pull copies of Persepolis immediately from 7th grade classrooms.
But, she emphasized in her letter, the book is to remain on school library shelves.
“Please be reminded that central school library collections are governed by the New Collection Development Policy for School Libraries,” Byrd-Bennett wrote. “We are not requesting that you remove Persepolis from your central school library. Therefore do not remove this book or any other book from the central school library, unless you have complied with the policy.”
The New Collection Development Policy for School Libraries, adopted by CPS in 2006, establishes the criteria necessary regarding the placement, removal, and replacement of all library materials in the Chicago public schools. The policy is modeled upon the American Library Association’s bill of rights and provides for both a formal complaints process and an appeals process before any book under challenge can be pulled from school shelves.
“In our haste sending out the notice [to pull Persepolis from classrooms], we did not clearly explain,” Gurley confessed, trying to explain the controversy that erupted Thursday night and is still going on, which included the Chicago Teachers Union issuing a statement Friday condemning CPS for restricting access to Persepolis.
“The only place we’ve heard of this book being banned is in Iran,” CTU financial secretary Kristine Mayle declared. “We understand why the district would be afraid of a book like this-- at a time when they are closing schools--because it’s about questioning authority, class structures, racism and gender issues.”
The American Library Association sent a letter Friday afternoon to Byrd-Bennett, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and to David Vitale, the head of the Chicago Board of Education, requesting an explanation for CPS’ restricting access to Persepolis.
“The CPS directive to remove this book from the hands of students represents a heavy-handed denial of students’ rights to access information,” the ALA wrote in its letter.
Pantheon, Satrapi’s U.S. publisher, also weighed in on the controversy, declaring in a statement e-mailed to PW Friday afternoon, “The Chicago Public School district has issued an ambiguous statement regarding the present and future availability of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis to students. The book has been read and taught in school districts across the country, without caveat or condition. In addition, Marjane has met with students across the country, including students in Chicago. The fact that Chicago is trying to limit this book’s use in classrooms and curriculums, suggesting teachers need guidance before they can discuss it, smacks of censorship.”